Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Indiscernible

Virtual therapy for burn patients. Burn patients can navigate through and interact with a serene snowscape in the virtual reality environment Snow World, helping to reduce their pain. Image: Hunter Hoffman, University of Washington. Image Source: Medil Reports Chicago.

A few years ago, I wrote a short story about a guy who had his identity stolen via credit card fraud. The story involved an unknown contender, a thief, a virtual nemesis, a shadowy interloper from the other side of the protagonist's reality, who began charging on the guy’s card everything that the guy had skipped or missed out on in his life. Forgot his wife’s birthday? Up popped the charges for the restaurant, roses, chocolate, lingerie. This led the wife to think that the character was not a victim targeted by a malicious criminal, but that he was having an affair and she began demanding a divorce. He wanted to be a man of action and ideals – when he had become a dusty, frustrated college prof. Up came the James Bond credit card charges in exotic locales. And so on. It was a 'Walter Mitty meets his virtual karma in the new century' story. This was back when identity theft was an interesting, novel idea. But these days, 'new and interesting' stays 'new and interesting' for about thirty seconds, and identity theft is now taken for granted.

But the core idea to my story is still relevant. Every time we get on the internet, every time we change our names and faces to that of an online avatar, every time we engage with other people through an online no man’s land, there is something unseen, something intangible created. There is an ‘other side’ we can never quite reach. We know people we do not actually know. We communicate in forums and on boards under conditions in which human beings would normally avoid all communication.  What is just too risky face-to-face is quite different in the world of relative anonymity. Or so it would seem.  We provide our birth dates to Facebook or merchants, we tick boxes that authorize our banks to look at our social networking and Twitter activities. And so on.

Most people tackle these problems from the point of view of discussing the loss of privacy and private worlds. Or they look at practical concerns like consumer protection. Over at Extratemporal Perception, Paul Laroquod has set up a series of hypermedia experiments that take us right into the internet’s grey zone. He has a new series of posts that function like an elaborate, tech-driven ghost story. His work is a genuine stab at writing inside and through new media worlds (similar to an early interactive site, which I blogged about here). The premise – if I read it rightly – for the posts is that the fictitious first person narrator in the story, who is a computer hacker, begins clearing out extraneous files on his server. Then one night, he finds a ghost file on the server that should not be there. He figures it is an anomaly. The story continues here: “While attending the Toronto International Film Festival, I admit it was mere whimsy that kept me checking my server for another hacked file, perhaps referencing one of the films I'd seen. But I never found one, and I had come to feel quite the grandiose fool for suspecting myself the target of some film-reviewing internet conspiracy, based on a single freak occurrence. That is, until last night, when I found this. —PLQ.”

The fictitious hacker is explaining the story (go here) to the real blogger and author of the story, Paul Laroquod. The story continues here: “A hacker, haunted by spirit scenes from another world, claims to have found a way to leak those stories into that world's 'internet', which he says is actually this world's internet. He explained all this to me in our little chat.  He asks only that we release his logs freely into our 'Public Domain.’” The blog includes some disembodied transcriptions of uploaded files and related 'chatter' and imagery, and directs you to other ‘Public Domain’ files on the blog which are supposedly uploaded via the hacker through his disturbing interface with this other world.  This little crystal ball scenario with the other world of course completely changes the blogger's claimed dimensional context of the posts and files you see on his blog, even as he leaves you with a sharp little sub-statement about copyright issues.  It is a bit mind-bending, but I hope I got that right.  Even if I did not, Paul has definitely taken me some place new!

What does it mean, to inhabit the no man’s land of virtual information and interaction, to be part of this different world? Two recent calls for papers are discussing this. The first is from a journal at MIT. The call for papers is here and here. The main site for the journal, entitled Thresholds, is here, and the call for papers for its 40th volume explains:
"Gone are the days of black and white and here is the time of grey. As social linkages have become wildly complex, the normative positions that might bring them order have evaporated. ... We simultaneously have more awareness of and distance from social crises than ever before. ... Is there a metanarrative lurking in our culture that could generate a new moral authority for society?"
To that question, I would answer, 'yes.'  That is the main question I am seeking to answer with many of my posts about emerging forms of superheroism and villainy in comics and graphic novels on this blog. As we cross this 'threshold,' we enter the realm of the 'Indiscernible,' which is the title of an upcoming conference at McGill University. The main site is here; the call for papers reads:
"The Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University is pleased to announce this year’s graduate conference, 'The Indiscernible.' ... This year’s symposium will seek to interrogate the value and status of what is indiscernible to direct experience. From the rise of nanotechnologies on the one hand to the overwhelming size and complexity of global systems and networks on the other, artistic, theoretical and daily practices are confronted with realities that lie beyond immediate perception ... the indiscernible offers a valuable way of entry into discussions of the invisible, the blinding, or that which lies beyond the realm of the sensible at large. ... As an object of inquiry the indiscernible opens up a space of desire that motivates both thought and action. In an age when many of us have immediate access through Internet technologies to a global storehouse of information, and perhaps an overabundance of opportunities for discernment, is the space of uncertainty shrinking along with the power of folklore and myth? Or is the inability to discern the relative value of information felt more acutely than ever before?"


  1. Hey wow, thanks so much for the kind words, ToB. You're thinking about a lot of the same issues that I've been trying to achieve with my experiments. It's heartening to know that I've managed to convey this much about what I'm doing or at least tapping into the right pre-existing wavelength.

    Your blog is really interesting BTW — full of wideranging thoughtful posts, glad I've found it!



  2. Thanks Paul, I think your website and projects are fascinating. A very rare set of experiments that takes us to the next level.

  3. We are all digital ghosts now.

  4. Yep. And all it took was the past ten years.